Managing By Cliches, Part 5: Don’t Paint Yourself Into A Corner

The Joy of Painting

Bob Ross considered his tools -- his brushes -- to be his friends. Shouldn't organizational policies be our "friends," supporting our needs, not limiting them?

Do you remember Bob Ross, the man with the soothing voice, wild hair, and happy demeanor who hosted The Joy of Painting shows on PBS for so many years?  As I recall, one of his favorite phrases was pointing out in an encouraging way, as he added elements to his painting, that “the brush is our friend.” He wanted brushes to expand our horizons, not limit them.

I don’t know if Bob Ross (who sadly passed away at the young age of 52 in 1995 but lives on in re-runs around the world) knew anything about “human resources” or “corporate policies” — but I thought of him recently in connection to both of these topics.   I wouldn’t imagine that he ever would have wanted his viewers to feel that they were “painting themselves into a corner,” as it were.  Rather,  for Mr. Ross, it seemed that painting was a tool for supporting and expressing our true selves — growth, not limitation within artificial bounds.

I saw a story in the news recently about a company that seemed to have used its policies in quite opposite of the way Mr. Ross conceived of his brushes — as a limiter, not as a support and enhancer of the life of the organization.   So many policies today, rather than being our “friends,” take the humanity out of organizations and decision-making.  I find this very sad, and unnecessary.

“Zero Tolerance” Is Anything But

As reported here in the New York Post, an 82-year old American Airlines groundworker at JFK Airport was fired just short of his 55th anniversary with the company for inadvertently using what someone deemed a “gay slur.”  While not stated specifically by American, it appears that this violated a so-called zero-tolerance policy.  This all happened despite the fact that the individual, Freddy Schmitt, had a spotless record, and there is no evidence that he ever exhibited animus toward gays or any other group.  Considered a father-figure to his long-time co-workers, Mr. Schmitt retains his pension under terms of the firing, but loses his health benefits and the travel privileges enjoyed by himself and his wife of 45 years.

Really? Does a policy like this serve anyone’s interests? Certainly, slurs have no place in the workplace or anywhere else.  But aren’t policies supposed to help guide our actions, not turn HR people and managers into automatons not required to use their professional best judgment? Wouldn’t a warning, at most, have seemed in order here — and perhaps a brief meeting to reinforce the intended nature of the policy?  Was there anything that happened that even vaguely warranted a termination, particularly of a long-serving, loyal employee?

A Word of Perspective, and Encouragement

A word of encouragement here to truly use policies as our “friends” — guiding and supporting, but not “painting ourselves into a corner.”  Mr. Ross would be proud.

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